Of all the persons associated with the sinking of the British passenger ship Athenia and the rescue of her passengers, no one is more enigmatic than the Swedish multimillionaire Axel Wenner-Gren. His yacht, Southern Cross, was the second ship to join the rescue operations the morning of September 4, 1939, and he saved 376 passengers.
When he answered Athenia’s distress call following the German U-boat attack, Wenner-Gren was one of the wealthiest men in the world, worth more than $100 million. He ran a business empire that spanned the globe. But he also was a very private man who preferred to shun the spotlight. As a result, rumors swirled about his relationship with Nazi Field Marshall Herman Gӧring, his business interests in Germany, and his motives for attempting to broker a peace accord between Germany and Great Britain.
Was Wenner-Gren a Nazi spy or simply a man out of his depth in the world of diplomacy?
Regardless of the answer to that question, there is no doubt that Axel Wenner-Gren was a hugely successful businessman. He was born in 1881 to a wealthy Swedish family. When he finished his public schooling at age 15, Wenner-Gren went to work for an uncle in the spice import business, studying English, French, and German on the side.
That practical experience guided him to his business studies at two German universities, and he completed his formal education by the end of 1902. For the next ten years, he moved between Germany, Austria and the United States, working in the agricultural machinery business. For a brief period Wenner-Gren owned an interest in an Austrian company that sold industrial vacuum machines, seeing a great potential in the product if it could be adapted for household use.
His reputation as a sales and marketing genius began to grow when he went to work in 1912 for Lux AB, a Swedish lighting company, and obtained the contract to provide lighting for the Panama Canal opening in 1915. Following World War I, Wenner-Gren convinced Lux officials to buy Elektromekaniska AB, a Swedish company that owned a patent for a vacuum cleaner. The companies merged to form Electrolux, and he asked to be paid in company stock for sales of the vacuum cleaner.
The household vacuum cleaner was so successful that within ten years, Wenner-Gren owned Electrolux and had expanded its sales throughout Europe and the United States. At the same time, he diversified his operations by acquiring interests in Bofors, a Swedish arms manufacturer; Svenska Cellulosa, a forest products company; and later on Svenska Aeroplan AB (Saab), an airplane manufacturer.
As his business expanded beyond Europe and North America, Wenner-Gren purchased the Southern Cross, reputedly the largest private yacht in the world, from the American industrialist Howard Hughes. In the 1930s, he used the yacht as a calling card to pursue his interests around the world, entertaining monarchs, celebrities and politicians in addition to international businessmen.
Within another ten years, however, this highly regarded and well respected man, who counted many influential power brokers among his friends, became the subject of speculation and nasty innuendo. Notwithstanding his rescue of Athenia passengers, including many Americans, Wenner-Gren suffered the worst humiliation of his life at the hands of the U.S. government. The story of his fall will be the subject of my next blog.